By John Lord
The subject of political lying, since the election of Tony Abbott, has almost become a permanent point of discussion on main stream media, social media and the blogosphere.
Why is this so? It’s because the Prime Minister has set a record of lying both past and present that is unprecedented in Australian political history. If you think I am exaggerating read “Remembering Abbott’s past”.
Lying is so engrained in his political persona that he knows not the difference between fact and fabrication.
More recently his lie about funding the ABC (and all the others) has drawn immense criticism. On Monday 24 November he denied in Parliament that he had broken a pledge not to cut funding to the ABC and SBS, telling Parliament his government had “fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people”.
In saying this he used another lie to justify telling the original one. This is not just wrong but appallingly immoral. To suggest the first lie was not one is to suggest we are no longer communicating in English.
And Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to do the same thing only served to devalue his own integrity.
More recent examples are the PMs Letter of advice on changes to the pension. What a deceitful document it was. Really his lying knows no bounds. He fails to mention the way the pension is calculated is to be changed (If he can get it passed) resulting in a substantial loss of income. Does he really think we are fools?
Another deceitful lie is the cuts to power bills with the elimination of the Carbon tax. The resulting drops in charges varied across the country and nowhere near the $550 he indicated everyone would receive.
Yet another example was when asked about the Green Fund at a joint press conference with President Hollande the PM said that we already had a Direct Action fund of 2.5 Billion and a Clean Energy Finance Corp 10 Billion fund. The only thing wrong with the answer was that the first won’t work and it is a tax not a fund. And its Government policy to abolish the second.
Unfortunately less informed voters outnumber the more politically aware. Therefore, conservatives feed them all the bullshit they need. And the menu generally contains a fair portion of untruths.
People like Bolt and Jones write and comment outrageously on the basis of payment for lying controversy. Freedom of the press may entitle them to do so but it is unjustifiable for the Prime Minister to follow suit on the grounds of a collective desire for honesty in government. It is however, highly unlikely that this Prime Minister has the decency to do so.
“Political Lies and Who Tells Them Revisited”.
The issue of truth featured largely in the last election. We the voters were often left to decide who was and who wasn’t telling the truth. Or who was telling more or less of it. So what is a lie? This election was different in so much as we saw the emergence of various “Truth Finder” sites and both sides of the political spectrum were found out telling full-on porkies, or at least using different shades of hue.
This week lying has again been highlighted with the Government’s decision to axe the Gonski Education reforms. The troubling aspect of this decision is that during the campaign Tony Abbot gave a number of commitments. For example:
“This will be a no surprises, no excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises and lame excuses from people that you have trusted with your future”.
He also promised a ”unity ticket” with Labor on Gonski funding:
“You can vote Liberal or Labor and you’ll get exactly the same amount of funding for your school”.
“There will be no change to school funding under the government I lead”.
These commitments were totally unambiguous. Unequivocally intentional. So much so that the average voter on hearing them could logically assume that they were being told the absolute truth.
We now know that the Prime Minister and his Education Minister Christopher Pyne were telling blatant lies about this and many other policies. Policy decisions since the election (as listed in other posts on this blog) demonstrably attest to this. Their actions have been universally condemned by all media outlets except those of Murdoch who has a vested interest in protecting Abbott from criticism.
This all gives rise to the question of the value of the words politicians use. I for one wouldn’t believe a word Abbott says. There is ample evidence that he is a liar and he has declared so himself.
But let’s take a look at the broader picture and ask ourselves what is a lie in general and what constitutes political lying.
We know that a lie has three essential ingredients; it communicates some information, the liar intends to deceive or mislead and the liar believes that what they are ‘saying’ is not true. And we call people who use these three principles blatant liars.
When the leader of the then opposition said in July 2012: “The tragedy of this toxic tax is that it will not actually reduce emissions” and six months later they fall by 8.6%. Did he actually tell a lie? One could well argue that he had no facts on which to base his assumptive statement, so it could not be construed as a lie. It might be just an opinion. The same could be said about his statements about towns being wiped of the map and many others. However, if in politics we believe that lies or statements are made either to deceive or manipulate (and has the three principles mentioned previously), then you would conclude that he was telling porkies.
“When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts”.
– Michael Ende, The Never-ending Story
“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”.
– Adolf Hitler.
Conversely, when the former Prime Minister said “I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism”, “I rule out a carbon tax”, did she actually tell a lie? Clearly she showed an intent to keep her options open. As it turns out we have a market based scheme. She was not trying to deceive. She was being honest within the uncertainty of the circumstances. And the MSM never gave her the benefit of the doubt.
I have always felt that when politicians have in their possession certain knowledge and facts and fail to disclose it then they are guilty of lying by omission. When you withhold information you are denying the other person’s right to the truth. An example of this was when John Howard found out that the children overboard incident was false and withheld the information for two days prior to the 2001 election. It was in fact lying by omission. And of course there is the weapons of mass destruction lie. Did John Howard ever check the facts? If not he perpetuated one of the greatest lies in history.
“When you tell a lie you deny the other person’s right to the truth”.
– John Lord.
On a more personal level there are what we call white lies where we deliberately colour what we say in shades of hue to protect the feelings of others or ourselves, or to avoid argument.
“Clinton lied. A man might forget where he parks or where he lives, but he never forgets oral sex, no matter how bad it is”.
– Barbara Bush.
Consider the case where telling a lie would mean that 10 other lies would not be told. If 10 lies are worse than one lie then it would seem to be a good thing to tell the first lie, but if lying is always wrong then it’s wrong to tell the first lie.
When politicians lie over a long period of time, it only serves to denigrate the liar and show contempt for the voter’s intelligence. Especially if the lies are chronic and systemic. The current use of the term “no direct knowledge” is a lie within a lie pretending to absolve a person who is fully conversant with the facts.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . . when first we practice to deceive”.
– Walter Scott, Marmion.
Lying is probably one of the most common wrong acts that we carry out (one researcher has said ‘lying is an unavoidable part of human nature’), so it’s worth spending time thinking about it.
Why is lying wrong?
There are many reasons why people think lying is wrong; which ones resonate best with you will depend on the way you think about ethics.
Lying is bad because a generally truthful world is a good thing: lying diminishes trust between human beings; if people generally didn’t tell the truth, life would become very difficult, as nobody could be trusted and nothing you heard or read could be trusted – you would have to find everything out for yourself and an untrusting world is also bad for liars – lying isn’t much use if everyone is doing it.
Who are the biggest liars? The left or the Right of Politics.
Last year on Facebook I shared a post of an interview with Laurie Oakes and Tony Abbott (you can see it on YouTube). It is from 2005 and Tony Abbott is obviously telling lies about the Medicare safety net. At the time I made the following comment to accompany it:
“People who constantly portray the prime minister as someone who constantly tells lies should take the time to read this”.
It was then picked up by former National Times journalist Alan Austin and we had a chat about broken promises, telling lies and the current standard of journalism. He had this to say:
Remember, it was a Senator from his own side who called John Howard ‘the lying rodent’.
And have we forgotten the articles about Malcolm Fraser’s ‘Top 40 broken promises’?
Lies, about-faces and broken promises are as follows:
Gough Whitlam: 7
Malcolm Fraser: 52
Bob Hawke: 4
Paul Keating: 3
John Howard: 41
Tony Abbott (as minister): 17
Kevin Rudd: 4
Julia Gillard: 6
Tony Abbott (as Opposition Leader): 15 and counting. As PM ?
I found this to be particularly revealing so I inquired as to the authenticity of the figures and he replied with the following:
Before your time, John, I wrote a piece for The National Times in 1977 about what were then Malcolm Fraser’s top 25 blatant lies and broken promises. The then editor Trevor Kennedy – later to become one of Rupert’s henchmen – headed it “Malcolm’s battle with the time machine” which I thought at the time was unduly generous towards Mr Fraser.
Later, in 1980, I wrote a piece for Nation Review on Fraser’s top 40 lies and broken promises which then editor, Geoffrey Gold, headed ‘Promises, promises.’ Neither are online, unfortunately, but I have them in my clip file. Since then, I have kept tabs on all Prime Ministers and would love to write about it.
If I get a publisher, I will let you know. (I am tentatively titling the piece ‘Lies, damned lies and I support the elected leader of the party’). Point being that there is simply no comparison whatsoever between the falsehoods and about-faces of the Conservatives and Progressives. The ratio is about 8 to 1. Which is why the current perception that Ms Gillard is ‘Juliar’ is so bizarre from this vantage point. (I am in France. Which means I read other media than just Rupert Murdoch’s).
Well I do hope you get to do it, Alan. I have been following politics for around 50 years and it is time we had more honesty and the standard of reporting is deplorable. However, do you think there is at times a fine line between a broken promise and a change of mind? And of course changed circumstances can necessitate a change of mind. I would also be interested in what you think of the standard of political journalism in Australia today.
Again, quoting Alan Austin:
Excellent questions, John.
Re standard of journalism in Australia:
Regarding categories of deception, there are at least seven.
Staring down the camera bare-faced lies are Class A falsehoods, like this one satirised here:
This is Tony Abbott lying about a meeting with George Pell.
Promises broken for political expediency with no external factors forcing their abandonment are Class B Examples are Ms Gillard duding Mr Wilkie recently. And Mr Howard’s no-GST-never-ever which he abandoned before the 1998 election.
A Class B broken promise may, of course, be ratified by an election. If this succeeds, as indeed happened with Mr Howard’s GST, then it becomes less offensive. Say Class C.
Commitments made in good faith but prevented from being implemented despite the government’s genuine best efforts – by a hostile Senate or the High Court or a hung Parliament – are Class D.
Promises prevented from being implemented by changed economic conditions – such as Paul Keating’s L-A-W-law tax cuts – are Class E.
Promises deferred by changed economic or political conditions – such as Labor’s no carbon tax – are Class F. (Keating’s L-A-W tax cuts also turned out to be F eventually.)
Assurances of loyalty to the leader by putative challengers deserve a special category. Say Class I. (I for inevitable? Unavoidable?)
‘Telling the truth should not be delayed simply because we are not sure how people might react to it’.
In the US election Republicans Romney and Ryan took lying to an unprecedented level. Fact finders alerted the public to 2019 lies by Romney alone. It is my contention that
President Obama lost the first debate not because he was off his game, or that he was under prepared, but rather he was taken by surprise by the willful lies that Romney was telling. The same fascination for untruth by conservatives has been exported to Australia.
In my view Australians faced the most important election in living memory. Liberalism no longer existed so what we were faced with was a political decision between a very sharp turn to the scary right. Or a party (in spite of its faults) that had the common good at the centre of its ideology. In our ignorance, or perhaps our naivety we elected a cohort – an all-male club who insisted they were adults but instead turned out to be juvenile liars.
“Do you shape the truth for the sake of good impression? On the other hand, do you tell the truth even if it may tear down the view people may have of you? Alternatively, do you simply use the contrivance of omission and create another lie. I can only conclude that there might often be pain in truth but there is no harm in it”.